May 2011

The Joy of the Unexpected Encounter

Just in case you are thinking that the “march of the salamanders” has passed, think again! Yes, all the mole salamanders: the spotted, the Jefferson, and the marbled salamanders have completed their spring migrations to the vernal pools. They are back in the burrows and tunnels of New England’s deciduous and mixed hardwood forests. But the woodland trails and dirt roadways of rural New England are the highways and byways of one our most endearing salamanders: the juvenile red-spotted newt. Otherwise known as a red eft.

The sighting of a red eft on the forest floor delights and lifts the spirits of all, young and old alike. They are a spark of color and wonder on a grey day, they remind us that our relationships with animals need not be limited to zoos or farms or pets. There is a unique excitement and joy to be experienced when the encounter is unexpected and takes place in the wild. It is precisely these kinds of encounters that connect us to place, and help us to feel a part of something greater. In his book, Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv makes the irrefutable case that direct exposure to nature is essential to a child’s physical and emotional health. So don your boots, roll up your sleeves and join your young teacher in a woodland exploration.

The bright orange-red color of the red eft makes sightings easy. Their coloration is a warning to potential predators, such as birds, to stay away. The skin of the red eft secretes a toxin making them less then appetizing. This is not a problem for those who are gently handling them as the toxin is secreted only when the red eft’s skin is bruised. Because the skin of amphibians (frogs, toads and salamanders) is moist and is permeable to both gas and water, it is important to ensure that hands are clean and free of soaps or detergents. Also, wet hands are preferable to dry hands when handling amphibians.

Remembering that all amphibians must be handled with care and sensitivity, it is exciting to experience the tickle of the red eft’s toes as it saunters across the palm of your hand. The best practice is to squat low to the ground, and invite the red eft to come to you by placing your damp hand outstretched in front of it. You may have to move your hand around a bit as the red eft may choose initially to try to walk around your hand rather than accept your invitation. Once the eft is walking on your hand, by continuously placing one hand in front of the other you can enjoy the red eft’s touch for a length of time.

As you and your child are holding and ogling over the cute little salamander that fits in the palm of your hand, think about the newt’s life cycle. After hatching from an egg, underwater, it lives there for a few months. Then it leaves it watery home, having absorbed it’s gills and developed lungs, to live for up to five years on land. Eventually it returns to the aquatic environment to mate, lay eggs and enjoy it’s retirement back in the comfort of a pond, lake or stream for an additional five to fifteen years. Yes – you did the math correctly! The red eft in your four-year-old’s hand may be as old as she is, and the one she finds in the lake could be as much as 20 years old!


The more time we spend in the woods, the more comfortable we become there. It does not take long to develop a relationship with place. For our children to begin to experience the forests and streams of our landscape as a part of their home, they will feel connected to something larger than themselves, and will have a deep sense of place. This will serve to benefit them as well as society as time passes. In the meantime, woodland explorations are just plain fun!

If you know a child who is a nature enthusiast, or is budding to become one, check out BEEC’s summer camp programs at Sign up today – camps fill fast!